Beyond Belief: Light & Life to All Who Live

First United Methodist Church, Oneonta N.Y.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? (Romans 8:31)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:35)

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 8: 37-39)

“… wanting as a friend to give, light & love to all who live.”

Last Sunday after church, I took a trip. Not far in mileage, but half a century in time. It was the closing service of the Campmeeting season, you see, at Dimock, Pennsylvania. That means an almost outdoor service, in a big barn of a tabernacle, with the sides open to the forest night. It was time-travel, because a good part of my religion comes from the “sawdust trail,” if you know the expression. The amphitheater at Chautauqua – the Tabernacle at Ocean Grove – the Bible Conference at Montrose, where the sawdust in the aisle was literal: Those were my songs when I was 7, & I knew the words to all the altar calls.

Dimmock is a calmed-down version of this 150 year-old tradition, but the thread is still there. A good friend was the preacher of the evening; the altar call was appropriately transformed into an invitation to Holy Communion. But just the same, my friend’s theology kinda grossed me out; we could have spent the night arguing, if we’d chosen. And the songs I found myself humming from memory, I discovered to be shockingly insensitive, in their patriarchal, condescending language, & I wondered why I’d never noticed as a kid. And I had already been told outside, that the congregation there – friends & strangers alike – were strongly disapproving of my Reconciling Methodist gospel. I mean, everything was set to reaffirm with Thomas Wolfe, that “you can’t go home again.”

Except that I did. As I got up to receive Holy Communion – those terrible little wafers that stick like cardboard to the roof of your mouth: As I walked down front, singing “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me…” Well, I forgot about the theology & the language & the hostility – & even those awful wafers. Because Jesus was inviting us all, to his table. Not that our differences didn’t matter. They do – they matter terribly sometimes. But for the moment, something transcended all that. As Jesus said “Drop it! Just let me love you for a while.”

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” You see, this fall, I want to struggle with the fact that our true spiritual life is not really in our head – it’s in our heart, metaphorically speaking. There’s a terrible heresy sapping the life out of religion today, & it’s the mistake that faith is “believing certain ideas.” To “believe in God” – to “believe in Jesus” – supposedly means to agree with what the preachers say about them.”Yes, I believe that God exists & created the universe.” “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for me. And if I can accept those ideas, then he’ll take me to heaven.”

But I’m sorry, nothing could be further from the spirit of Jesus the Christ. This is a popular heresy, that if we can force ourselves to think a certain way, then we have “faith.” But Jesus’ whole point was that faith is not a “head trip”; it’s a “heart trip.” Faith is not words; it’s a relationship. Faith is an experience of trust with the God in whom we live & move & have our being. And Jesus’ whole intention was to love us so completely, that we would find ourselves immersed & surrounded by the Holy God we cannot comprehend. And so we’ve got to move “Beyond Belief,” (to quote the theologian, Marcus Borg, who occupied a good part of my summer. ) We’ve got to go further than just nifty ideas about God, go out into that awesome emptiness, where we find ourselves held by what we cannot conceive.

And you see, I think we start by returning to where we began: A child-like world, where our ideas were always confused & often ridiculous, & where the only real thing, was whether or not we knew that we are loved. Did you notice the T. S. Eliot on the bulletin?

“We shall not cease from exploring, And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”

“Jesus loves me, this I know, as he loved so long ago, taking children on his knee, saying ‘Let them come to me. ‘”

That’s where a lot of us started, you see. And it wasn’t an “idea.” We didn’t know Jesus, from God, from Mommy, from Santa Claus. It wasn’t an idea – it was an experience: “I am loved by life.”

Even as I say that, I know that some of you didn’t feel that as children. And I urge you to throw yourself, therefore, now into the love of the people around you that you can trust. Because that can be the epoxy for the holes that remain. But if you can open even a little tunnel to the past, to feel that hold of love around you – go there. And in the experience, understand the place for the first time. For it is God.

I did another time-travel this week. (I don’t know, maybe its middle age. ) But Thursday night I was called out to Bassett Hospital, & coming home about midnight, I knew I had to write on this text the next morning: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And I warped about a third of a century, there in the night. A graduate student in theological school. An assignment to interview someone on the underside of life. My friend & I presenting ourselves at a children’s prison in Baltimore – a reformatory for girls. A room painted gas-chamber green. Chairs in a circle, filled with young women, kids in their teens, mostly African- American, all poor – wouldn’t be there if they weren’t.

Prostitution, theft, drugs, homicide – 16 years old. Old enough though, to handle 2 white boys from Seminary. Stories to shock us. Questions to stump us.”Where did Cain’s wife come from?” “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” Fleeting moments of connection: grandmothers who loved, took them to church & cared.

Questionnaires to tabulate our assignment. Reading them, home in my secure apartment with Sylvia. I don’t remember anything on them. Except one, now carved as if in granite in my brain. Question: “What does religion mean to you.” Answer printed in child-like pencil scrawl: “When I think of Jesus, I know I have somebody who loves me.”

It’s not so simple a thing to sing “Jesus loves me.” Whether you’re a 15 year-old prostitute, so far down a dead-end street. Or a privileged preacher, calloused by cynicism in a world of “enemies lists.” Or wherever you are.

But that’s where faith began. And, please God, it’s where faith comes again, full circle.”Jesus loves me, still today – walking with me – on my way. Wanting – as a friend – to give light – & love – to all who live.” Would you come to his table? Forget the ideas. Feel the presence & accept the love – for all who live.

This sermon stems from Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.